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4 August, 2006  

Good morning

Next year's Russian River cruise was well received last week and we now have nine people choosing to participate.  Ideally, we'd have a group of about 20, so please keep those sign up requests coming in.

The single cabins have proved to be very popular, and there is now only one remaining single cabin onboard the vessel.  I've put a temporary hold on it in case we have another person considering traveling as a single who might want to take advantage of this.

The single cabins are actually more roomy than the twin cabins - they are the same size, and because they have one of the two beds removed, there is more space in the cabin.  If you'd like to have this cabin, please fill out the joining form at the bottom of our Russian River Cruise page to register your interest.  First in, first served!

And, of course, couples are very welcome to join us, too.  As I enthusiastically said last week, my experience a month ago on this cruise was very positive in every respect, and it is absolutely the best way to visit Russia and to see not just the two main cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, but some of the rest of Russia too.  You even get to have dinner in a small town Russian family's home one evening - that was a favorite for most of us.

I'm also adding some Travel Insider exclusive activities to the cruise, drawing on my own many visits to Russia over the last ten and more years.  So please do consider joining us on this wonderful cruise next July.

Many thanks to all the readers who participated in the survey on Blackberry and other portable email devices.  Your responses were interesting and illuminating, and rather confirmed my own experiences and perceptions with my new Blackberry 8700.  I have summarized and analyzed the responses and they are included in my three part series on the Blackberry (see below).  Yes, as compensation for the several silent weeks while I was away, there are three new pages being offered to you today.

I'm glad I delayed the Blackberry 8700 review until after a month of getting used to the unit.  If I'd written the review after not quite one week of using it, I'd have been rather negative.  But now I've had it for over a month, including the two weeks in Russia when it was my only internet conduit to the outside world, I've grown more comfortable with the device and love it with a passion.  Which leads to :

This Week's Feature Column :  Blackberry 8700 Review and Resources :  When I'm shortest of time - when I'm traveling; my Blackberry saves an hour or more of precious time every day.  Plus I'm as connected to my email, customers, and co-workers as if I were behind my desk back at the office.  Although difficult to master, now that I've done so, I love my new Blackberry.  Chances are you will love one, too.

This three part series on the Blackberry ended up being a monstrous 8400 words in length.  In case you don't read every last word, I'd particularly draw your attention to the section in part 3 headed 'The Blackberry Mindset'.  This provides the best summary of what Blackberry units are good at and why they can be so useful.

Dinosaur watching :  It has been a very good time for the dinosaurs recently.  And is it any wonder?  Air fares are massively up.  Passenger numbers are massively up.  Airline costs are massively down.  Fewer planes are carrying more passengers than ever before.

IATA reported a 6.7% growth in international travel during the first half of this year compared to the same time last year.

The US Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported its Air Travel Price Index rose 10.3% in the first quarter of 2006, the biggest year-over-year increase since it began tracking changes in airline ticket prices in 1995.

More surprisingly, this increase occurred even after allowing for a shift in passenger travel patterns, with more people choosing to fly low-cost carriers than ever before.

Bad news if you live in Cincinnati - this city saw the largest increase in fares, up 36.6% in the first quarter alone, but good news for Charlotte and Houston readers - these two cities recorded the smallest increases.

Some individual airline results provide further confirmationContinental had a 6.9% increase in July passenger miles, with a domestic load factor of 87.3%.

AirTran had a 26.8% increase in its revenue passenger miles, with a load factor of 81.3%.

United Airlines had a net profit of $119 million for its second quarter.

On the other hand, American Airlines showed a 2.3% decline in system passenger traffic, with the largest part of this decline being on domestic routes, where RPMs dropped 4.9%.  However, the airline also reduced capacity by 7.6%, so even though there were fewer people flying than last year, there were still fewer empty seats.

These results aren't confined to the US alone.  North of the border, WestJet reported a second quarter net profit of C$22.4 million, up from a mere C$2.3 million profit a year ago.  Revenues were up 30% for the quarter.

And BA is widely believed to be about to announce a strong profit for its last quarter on Monday.

Talking about BA, its arch-rival, Virgin Atlantic, announced some low late summer fares that were so amazing I thought they must be expressed as half a roundtrip fare.  But the airline confirmed that these are full roundtrip fares (taxes etc are extra, of course).

Roundtrips are available for as low as $308 from New York to London, $468 from Los Angeles or San Francisco, and various other rates from Virgin's many other US gateways.  Fares are only on sale through 10 August and are good for travel starting 1 September.  Full details from Virgin or - of course - your friendly local travel agent.

But, whether the dinosaurs are enjoying record passenger numbers and healthy profits or not, they're still up to their usual tricks.

Northwest is outlooking some nasty possible labor problems with its flight attendants, who said they intend to exercise their right to strike, with the potential for random mini-strikes across the airline's system, starting from 10.01pm EDT on the evening of 15 August.  This is as a result of NW's imposition of wage and benefit cuts which the union never agreed to.

Note - whether or not the flight attendants actually do have a right to strike is at best unclear, and this may simply be more public rhetoric by the flight attendants.  There's a court hearing next Wednesday to try and determine if the flight attendants can strike.

And, as expected, American Airlines' pilots union had a lot to say about the airline's executive bonuses.  It will be interesting to see how this flows through to their new contract negotations, due to start next month.

And talking about American Airlines, thanks to everyone - pilots included - who wrote in with comments in reply to my rhetorical question about where the AA plane was when it lost an engine and declared an emergency, discussed in last week's newsletter.

Although some readers pointed out that on occasion, flights between Los Angeles and London may fly quite considerably closer to New York than is normal (for example, to take advantage of strong tail winds or to avoid strong head winds) this was not the case for the AA flight.  The most telling piece of data is this historical record of the airplane's flight path.

The flight path strongly suggests that the flight turned around and diverted to New York, and had already flown about two thirds of the distance from when it diverted prior to admitting an engine failure, half an hour from landing.

The American Airlines spokesman, Billy Sanez, is quoted in this article and elsewhere as saying 'the Boeing 777 plane landed at Kennedy Airport less than a half hour after one of its two engines failed'.

If that is so, perhaps he could explain what caused the pilot to divert the plane an hour or more before the engine failed?

My point in all of this is not to suggest malfeasance on the part of the plane's pilot.  But it does seem that the official explanation by AA is a bit light on the truth.

United Airlines built up a large part of its international route system out of the ashes of Pan Am's slow collapse.  And now it in turn is selling off one of its international routes - JFK to Gatwick.  Puzzlingly, United admitted that business travel air fares from New York to London were attractively high, but said the high fares attracted strong competition, and it loses money on the route, in part due to the lack of a United hub at either end.  Accordingly, it is selling the route authority to Delta, for what is believed to be $21 million.

So United is admitting it can't compete against other airlines?  Not even against Virgin Atlantic, which has no hub in New York and little or no hub in London either?  Would it rather operate on routes with low fares?

United says it will continue to meet the needs of its travelers by moving them to its alliance partners (such as Lufthansa).  This tends to again confirm (if such confirmation is necessary) that airline alliances reduce rather than increase competition.

In related United news, here's a terrifying story of a United 'flight from hell' that had passengers trapped in an airplane with temperatures possibly as high as 115 due to a problem with the plane's auxiliary power unit.  Particularly telling is United's excuse that it was unable to find a replacement aircraft at any time during the five or more hours that the problem existed.  This excuse might be believable if the plane was at a far away remote airport, but the plane was in one of United's major hubs - Denver.

It used to be standard airline procedure to always keep an inventory of 'ready to go' planes at their major hubs.  Has United stopped doing this as a further cost saving measure?  And, if it has, why couldn't it have flown in a replacement plane from Chicago or San Francisco - two other not very distant hubs?

Either there is absolutely no slack remaining in United's airplane scheduling, or it is too mean to spend money to resolve a serious passenger service issue.  Neither explanation is satisfactory or reassuring.

Rather as expected, now that JetBlue is offering regular service between New York and Boston, other airlines are feeling the pressure to drop their fares.

With no reference at all to JetBlue's presence on the route, US Airways announced it was dropping its fares by 54% on its New York-Boston shuttle advance purchase fares, with a 14 day advance purchase ticket now as low as $100 roundtrip.  Delta quickly matched the new low fare.

And even though no airline is feeling much pain at present, the dinosaurs still hope to reduce the danger of future competition between themselves (even though the main competition is not from other dinosaurs but from the new low-cost carriers).

Perhaps this was the motivation for US Airways recently making overtures to Delta about merging the two airlines (or three airlines if you remember that US Airways itself is a very recent union of US Air and America West).  Fortunately for us, Delta apparently wasn't interested in the concept.

Here are twelve amusing ads suggesting you should use a particular online service to book your next travel plans.

But don't forget about travel agents, even if they lack the high powered advertising budgets of online companies.  Here's an interesting article about the value of using travel agents.  Although - like so many similar articles - it is filled with nonsense advice such as seeking out agents that belong to ASTA, it does quote a fascinating statistic - 93.6% of the time, travel agents find lower airfares than their customers found themselves, with an average $80 saving per ticket.

But saving money shouldn't be your strongest reason to use a travel agent.  Convenience, good service, and expert help are all more persuasive reasons.

Talking about saving money, travelers in the UK continue to benefit from crazy low airfares from Britain to many European destinations.

A Travelocity survey found that 70% of passengers are likely to use the money they saved on the airfare to upgrade their hotel.  Only 4% would use it to buy new clothes to take with them on their vacation, and 6% said they'd simply spend the money somehow while on their vacation.

Apparently no-one said they'd simply save the money and not spend it at all.

Here's an interesting new way for DFW airport to make money.  It has sold the right to drill for natural gas below its 18,000 acres of land for $181 million, plus a 25% royalty share of any natural gas found.

And talking about airports, LAX now has its second longest runway out of commission for the next eight months.  While the FAA is bravely saying that delays shouldn't exceed 25 minutes at peak times, some people view that as too optimistic.

Here are two steps you can take :  If you are flying in or out of the Los Angeles area, consider using one of the several other airports (which often times may be closer to your final destination than LAX anyway).  And if you're simply changing planes in LAX en route to somewhere else, use a different routing that has you changing flights at a different airport rather than at LAX.

If you must still fly through LAX, try to avoid the airport's busiest times.  The busiest time for departures is around 1pm - 2pm, and busiest time for arrivals is between 8.45pm and 9.45pm.

And if you're connecting, add extra time between flights in case of delays to the flight bringing you into LAX.

Here's an interesting list of the ten quirkiest hotels in the world.

Not making this list is a proposed new tourism development in Russia.  The mayor of Vorkuta, a small town in the northern reaches of the Ural Mountains is proposing converting a Soviet era gulag (concentration camp) into a tourist attraction. He believes Americans in particular and 'rich foreigners' in general will be pleased to pay $150-200 a night to stay there, and that the average visitor will spend three days in the area.

He's currently seeking investors to help with the project.

If anyone would like to include a side-trip to Vorkuta before or after their Russian River Cruise with me next year, please don't ask me to arrange it for you, or to travel there with you!

I've been predicting oil at $100 a barrel before the end of the year, and this week it has been around the $76 mark, but I may be understating the pricing upside potential.  As this article reports, an Iranian report suggesting oil prices could hit $200 met with little concern, but not much strong denial either.  Yuck.

Silly cell phone fears part one :  There are more germs on a cell phone than a toilet seat according to this study.

Silly cell phone fears part two :  Some banks are not allowing their customers to use cell phones in case their customers are coordinating a robbery on the bank.

This Week's Security Horror Story :  While illegal immigrants continue to flood across our southern border, to be greeted by welcoming support groups upon arriving in the US, the Department of Homeland Security continues to ignore the issue and worry instead about lawful visitors.

In their latest bit of misdirected foolishness, they are proposing to fingerprint all green card holders every time they re-enter the US from abroad.  And why do they plan to do this?  To prevent some serious green card abuse?  No.  Simply because they can.  They now have fingerprinting capabilities for other categories of non-citizen visitors, so want to extend the fingerprinting to lawful permanent US residents too.

In case you haven't noticed, US citizens and permanent residents share the same lines when returning back to the US, so if permanent residents are now to be fingerprinted, we'll all be stuck in much longer lines to get back in the country.

Number of suspected terrorists that this new measure is expected to detect?  Zero.

And talking about international travel, please remember that as of 1 January 2007, all American citizens will have to have a valid passport to get back into the country when traveling by air or sea.  This is now less than five months away, and getting a new passport takes six weeks or more.  So if you're planning to fly to Mexico, Canada, or cruise the Caribbean in the future, you might want to think about lining up your passport well ahead of time.

And, if you already have a passport, do check to see when it expires.

Imagine this story was about an airplane rather than a truck.  Now, next flight you're on, notice all the people who pull out their Dell laptops and start working on them.  Do you feel safe?

Increasingly, those passengers with laptops are as likely to be women as men.  Indeed, here's an article suggesting that three out of four women would rather get a fancy new electronic gadget than a pair of designer shoes.  Just my luck to know the fourth woman...

My fellow New Zealanders are an inventive group of people, especially when it comes to exploiting potential loopholes in legislation that might save them money.

And lastly this week, readers will doubtless be delighted to find some more toilet news.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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